Report: Minnesota prison safety problems serious, not easily fixed

Barbed wire tops a fence separating two parts of Stillwater prison.
Barbed wire tops a fence separating two parts of Stillwater Correctional Facility in Bayport, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

Updated: 7:42 p.m.

State officials see signs that safety is a problem in Minnesota prisons, but they say that inconsistent and incomplete data make it hard to gauge the problem’s scope.

“Multiple sources indicate that prisoner violence against other prisoners slightly declined over the last four years,” according to a new report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. “However, prisoner assaults on staff increased dramatically during calendar year 2018, before dropping again in 2019.”

The audit, released Wednesday, follows the deaths of two staff members at Minnesota prisons.

Corrections officer Joseph Gomm, 45, was beaten to death by an inmate in the state prison in Stillwater on July 18, 2018. Another corrections officer, 37-year-old Joseph Parise, died just a few months later, on Sept. 24, 2018, after coming to the aid of a co-worker being assaulted by an inmate there.

Two other officers were also injured in assaults in November of 2018 at the state prison in Faribault, according to the Department of Corrections.

A 59-year-old inmate was also critically injured in an assault by another inmate at the Oak Park Heights prison last November.

State staff charged with looking into the violence says incident reports, prisoner status changes, prisoner and staff discipline records, workers’ compensation and medical records don’t fully reflect the levels of assaults and violence behind Minnesota’s prison bars. Violence among inmates often goes unobserved, as well.

The auditor’s report also found less-public problems in the prisons.

“In some state prisons, female staff endure repeated sexual offenses by some male prisoners, who catcall, verbally threaten them with sexual assault, or masturbate in front of them,” the report says. “Female staff said some supervisors and coworkers expect them to tolerate this behavior, and that prisoners frequently receive no disciplinary consequences.”

The report also says that one in three Department of Corrections staff members working in prisons say they are subject to unprofessional treatment at work, including bullying and sexual harassment. Many told investigators that prison administrators don’t take harassment seriously.

Hundreds of cells line the walls inside of Stillwater prison.
Hundreds of cells line the walls inside of Stillwater Correctional Facility.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

Numbers are part of the issue, according to the report.

The state prison at Stillwater has been running nearly 10 percent understaffed in recent months, and that as much as one-fifth of overtime shifts are mandatory. Prison officials also said that short staffing cuts back on prisoner activities, which may also contribute to violence in the prisons.

That’s been as the prison population has grown by 63 percent in the last 20 years, while staffing has increased just 13 percent. The state holds about 9,200 prisoners at 11 facilities, with just over 3,700 staff members.

The report calls on the Department of Corrections to better document events in prisons — using computers and automation to track data whenever possible, including data on what prisoners are placed in restrictive housing and for how long and documenting violent incidents specifically.

The report also says the prison buildings — some dating back more than a century — are part of the problem as they lack air conditioning, video cameras and other features that affect safety.

“The age of the living units at St. Cloud and Stillwater presents significant challenges to protecting the safety of prisoners and DOC employees. In our view, these safety risks would not be considered acceptable if they were found at highways, schools, courthouses, or other public structures in daily use. We do not think they should be acceptable for prisons,” the report says.

Short of decommissioning the housing units, the report says, the state should end the practice of putting multiple inmates in one cell.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell responded to the report in a three-page letter, saying “we concur in whole.”

The department, he added, has established a new professional accountability office to investigate allegations of staff misconduct. Schnell noted it’s also limiting the use of restrictive housing as a disciplinary tool for inmates and exploring the use of body-worn cameras by corrections officers, among other changes.

Schnell also suggested at a Wednesday afternoon hearing on the report that the inmate populations at Stillwater and Faribault prisons may be swapped, so that those housed in higher security go to a newer facility.

"At Stillwater, to make that a medium custody facility, versus close custody, which is what it is now, higher security level, there's space out there to use to do programming and those sorts of things, and we think that could be done with a really fairly small investment relative to what it would be to do a full scale replacement,” Schnell said.

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